By RAY A. SMITH and CHRISTINA BINKLEY
Israel’s new law banning skinny models has again brought up an uncomfortable topic to the table for the fashion industry, which has long been criticized for seeming to promote unnatural thinness as beauty standard. And once again, countries are divided as to how to deal with the issue of too-skinny models, by law or with other means.
Israel’s law, which went into effect Tuesday, bans models with a body-mass index—a calculation based on height and weight—of less than 18.5 from appearing in advertisements. According to that BMI standard, a female model who is 5 feet, 8 inches tall can weigh no less than 119 pounds.
The law also requires publications to disclose when they use altered images of models to make the women and men appear even thinner than they really are.
The skinny model issue has been a hot button for consumers since model Kate Moss helped bring in the “heroin chic” look in the early 1990s. Criticism has centered on the health of models as well as on the unhealthy images being promoted to young girls in magazines and fashion advertisements. After a number of models died of anorexia in recent years, public outcry led authorities in a number of countries—including Spain and Italy—to attempt to regulate models’ weight. The Madrid Fashion Show bans women whose BMI is below 18. Milan’s Fashion Week bans models with a BMI below 18.5.
The U.S. fashion’s industry main representative, the Council of Fashion Designers of America, has chosen to emphasize guidelines for healthy conditions. On Tuesday, responding to news of Israel’s ban, Steven Kolb, chief executive of the CFDA, said while he wouldn’t pass judgment on how other countries confront the issue, he stressed that the CFDA has a six-year-old program aimed at providing healthy environments for models based on recommendations from nutritionists, eating disorder specialists and fitness trainers. “We never had an approach of mandate or enforce,” he said. “We create awareness and education.”
Mr. Kolb said there are no plans to press for a U.S. law banning models under a certain weight or BMI. In 2007, the CFDA formed a health initiative to address, among other things, whether some models are unhealthily thin.
The council partnered with the fashion industry, medical experts and fitness trainers to form a committee to propose guidelines that promote “wellness and a healthier working environment.”
The guidelines include educating the industry to identify early warning signs of an eating disorder, encouraging models with eating disorders to get professional help or face not being able to model again, supplying healthy meals, snacks and water backstage and at shoots, and not hiring models under the age of 16 for runway shows and not allowing models under 18 to work past midnight at fittings or shoots.
“We think this has been successful at creating awareness,” Mr. Kolb said. He added that the organization sends a letter out to the industry every year reminding its members of the guidelines. He said that since the guidelines have been in effect, the U.S. fashion industry “has made great strides, particularly around age. We’ve seen a sharp decrease in underage models working during fashion week. We believe in consistent messaging from the CFDA, not pointing your finger at someone but a collective effort by the industry to ensure healthy working conditions.”
Alexandra Shulman, editor in chief of British Vogue, wrote a letter to leading fashion designers in 2009 asking them to make their sample clothing in larger sizes so magazines could hire larger models to wear them. A year later, she expressed disappointment that her effort had failed to result in changes.
But the efforts to regulate models’ weight in Spain and Italy have not resulted in significant changes, in part because of difficulties in determining reliable methods of measuring weight and health.
Miuccia Prada—one of the designers said to be responsible for the heroin chic movement, began using curvier models two years ago. Super model Lara Stone—who has famously worn a size 4 rather than size zero samples—reflect body shapes more like the supermodels of the 1980s. Curvy Kim Kardashian is shaped more along the lines of Marilyn Monroe than Kate Moss. And models do seem to be ever-so-slightly less-skinny on the runways in recent seasons.